Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Dangerous Life of the Salvadoran Tamale

It's Sunday and the place is packed.  There are no fewer than a hundred people in this supermercado latino and not a single person will speak to me.  Or look at me.  Or give me the hora del dia, the time of day.  I'm guessing it's because I'm tall.  And white.  And that I'm wearing a military haircut and green Ray Ban aviators and that they've all mistaken me for la migra, for some wayward I.C.E. hard case come in to knock heads and kick Latino ass and send these so-called mojados back to El Salvador on a one-way ticket home.  Yeah, it's the haircut that's got these folks spooked.  The whole Casper the Not-So-Friendly Ghost thing I've got going.  And the sunglasses; the sunglasses (and the fact I haven't taken them off) are really making these folks itch.  No one here can possibly see through them, into my eyes, and know I'm a viva la raza, si se puede kind of guy.  They can't possibly know I've come here for the incredibly cheap produce, the astonishing varieties of queso campesino, farmer's cheese, and that occasional and all-too guilty pleasure of mine:  Mexican Coca-Cola, delightfully devoid of high-fructose corn syrup and just the pure cane-sugary sweetness that it is.  If these folks would just take a minute to answer my questions on which masa de maiz (corn dough made from hominy) they would use in making their own pupusas, or which cut of pork makes the best chicharron.  But they don't.  They ignore me.  So I am left to navigate this supermercado on my own.  I grab some avocados.  Some jalapenos.  Some corn tortillas.  Some limes.  I know I am being watched as I shop.  Studied.  Even laughed at.  And I know why.  The contents of my shopping basket are all too predictable.  They surely comprise what every gringo comes here to buy.  If I was truly simpatico, had I any real huevos hanging between my legs, I would be back in the meat section haggling in Spanish over fish heads and sections of tripe.  But no.  I've clearly decided to hedge my bets.  Play it safe.  I've played this like any other garden-variety white boy would.  And the humiliation is keen.  So I slink up to the cash register to pay for my food.

But here's where it gets interesting.

Situated at the near end of the conveyor belt, closest to me, is an electric chafing dish full of fresh, homemade Salvadoran tamales.  Each tamale is wrapped in aluminum foil.  There is a pair of plastic tongs and a wrinkled sign urging caution, the tamales are hot.  And they are big, huge by Mexican standards.  And they smell divine.  And they only cost $1.99 each.

I've got to have one, two in fact, but something about this impromptu tamale stand troubles me, if only because I must consider such things as food safety, daily, at work.

I ask the cashier how long the tamales have been sitting here.

"Cuanto hace que estas aqui?" 

I don't know if she's more surprised by the question, or my bad Spanish.

She shrugs her shoulders.

"No se."


"Usted no sabe?"


"Lo siento."


My dilemma is a relatively simple one:  should I purchase a highly-perishable food product likely made of unknown ingredients in someone's unlicensed home kitchen under extremely dubious sanitary conditions and held well below safe-handling temperature in some makeshift electric chafing dish at the end of an already-suspect supermarket cash register, and insodoing, risk the two-to-four hours of puking my brains out and freckling the toilet bowl that comes with every poisoning by food?  Or should I just walk away?  Go back to my April-fresh world of hand sanitizers and Lysol wipes from whence all food-borne parasites have been banished and germs, any and all, are the common enemy of the middle class?  Run back to my U.S.D.A. prime like a frightened child for his baby blanket?  What to do.

I look back at the Latino family now in line behind me.  The husband is smiling at me.  His wife is tapping her foot.  They can sense my trepidation.  They can smell my fear.  And then the husband winks.  It is la migra who is now running scared.  The wink is a challenge.  A dare.

I turn back to the cashier and hold up two fingers.

"Voy a tomar dos."


The components of the tamale are deceptively simple.  Some form of cooked, often shredded protein, is wrapped in masa, or corn meal, and steam-cooked inside corn husks or plantain leaves until the masa is firm.  The sheer ubiquity of the tamale in Latino cooking makes them something of a joke for Anglo palates.  That some corn-fed farm boy in northwestern Nebraska knows of the tamale somehow renders them not worth eating for most gringos, and makes objects of culinary contempt.

And yet what I encountered in my two tamales was nothing short of sublime.  Both were wrapped in oily plantain leaves and stuffed with shredded chicken.  Inside the masa, itself rich and oily and incredibly flavorful, were raisins and green olives and pearl onions.  And while the complexity of each tamale was, gastronomically speaking, the equivalent of finger painting, each was rich and delicious and calorically highly-dense.  For when we speak of street food, particularly that of Latin America, we are necessarily speaking of high-fat, high-calorie food that must sustain the eater through woeful physical labor, or inordinately long periods of time between meals that may or may not ever come.  Food for the third world.  Food for the masses.  That my own four dollars American bought that many calories, and that much sheer culinary pleasure was a triumph.  I was more than just full.  I was satisfied.  I was happy.

But was I ever sick from these highly questionable Salvadoran tamales?

Before I answer:  a quick digression.

I well remember the last time I was poisoned by food.  I was shopping for picture frames at the Ikea in Woodbridge, Virginia, and blindingly hungover from the previous night's overindulgence and in desperate need of dietary protein.  No picture frames would be purchased without first scarfing down some form of Scandinavian animal matter to clear my fuzzy, fuzzy head.  So I foolishly ventured over to Ikea's in-store cafeteria and ordered the poached salmon.  Yes, I really did this.  It actually happened.  I wasn't thinking straight.  But before you judge me, please consider the very cerebral nature of my distress.  And when I ordered the salmon lunch special (with steamed potatoes and broccoli, no less) the sweet little old lady behind the counter informed me that I was in luck, and that the salmon lunch platter was buy one, get one free.  Wow, I thought.  Free fish.  This must be my lucky day.  Some luck.  I spent the next twelve hours in the fetal position on my bathroom floor, praying for a swift and merciful death.

As for the tamale?

I came through the experience with nary a gastrointestinal scratch.  But even if the tamales had made me sick, I would have wrapped my own ass in a Depends adult undergarment, gargled with Listerine, and marched back to the supermercado for two more.  Why?  What for?  Because life is dangerous.  Because eating anything is full of risk.  Even at Ikea.  Because a few hours of gastrointestinal distress is a paltry price to pay for eating something, safe or not, that tests your mettle, that asks you to ask yourself who you really are, that sets your heart aflutter with adrynalyne, all the while somehow teaching you something about the world, that great beyond.


Go ahead.

Eat something dangerous.

I dare you.

And if it makes you sick, I'll be there to wipe your chin.

Promise.






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